time was just not right because refrigerator companies came up with freon, which solve -- that's not poisonous. so they just place the refrigerant. but as we know, decades later we discovered that freedom may be doesn't people but it poisons the atmosphere. that's another one of those examples of the unforeseen consequences. 's. we been talking with henry petroski, the author of "the essential engineer: why science alone will not solve our global problems." >> next pulitzer prize-winning historian joseph ellis recounts the 1200 letters that john and abigail adams exchange throughout their over 50 year marriage. the letters provide an understanding of the adams' personal relationship as well as an extended discourse on the politics of their time. joseph ellis discusses his book at politics and prose bookstore in washington, d.c.. the program is just over 45
minutes. >> i'm not going to read to you -- i'm going to read a few passages, but i'll talk like 25 minutes and have questions. everybody is busy, got compensated lives, and then we will do a signing and get out of here. this was the most enjoyable book i have ever written to right. i had fun is not the right word, but fulfillment and trying to write this book in a way that hadn't been true for the other eight before it ate, that sounds like a lot, and i think it's partly because i've never written a love story before. and it is a love story. and it's a love story written across a rather consequential american historical landscape,
but here's the way i put it more cogently perhaps. all of us who have fallen in love, try to raise children, suffered extended bouts of doubt about the integrity of our ambitions, watched our once youthful bodies betray us, harbored illusions about our impregnable principles, and done all this with a partner traveling the same trail know what unconditional commitment means, and why, especially today, it is the exception rather than the rule. abigail and john traveled down that trail about 200 years before us. they remained lovers and friends throughout. and together, had a hand, a significant hand, in laying the foundation of what is now the oldest in doing republican world
history, no small matter. and they left a written record of all the twitches, traumas, throbbing and tribulations along the way. no one else has ever done that. and as suggested, one of the reasons for writing this book was to -- hey, get, how you doing? -- was to figure out how they did it. and i really mean that. how many of you have ever seen -- this is a talk that probably strikes a certain age group in a different way than another. that's entertainment. to member a movie called that's entertainment? a came out in the late '60s. it's a collection of the great musical moments in mgm musicals. my favorite is judy garland.
but there is a scene in the movie early in which very still in his prime, fred astaire, in his mid '30s, does the sequence, a dance sequence with a lot of how. eleanor powell makes ginger rogers looks clumsy. and they do this piece, and then frank sinatra, and sonata looks at the audience and says, you know, you can sit around and wait, but you never going to see that again. you can sit around and wait, but you ain't never going to see abigail and john again. because they are singular. and a story that i feel privileged to be able to tell.
i want to the dip you in a few moments and then let you ask me questions. let me give you a bit of a -- the letters themselves are so potent. there are about 1200 of them. why are there so many? because they are a part a lot. john is in philadelphia, she's in braintree during the continental congress and the revolution, upcoming, run up to the revolution. there's my son. how are you doing? and then he is in amsterdam while she is back in braintree, quincy, so that you would think like maybe the madisons continent, dolly and james
madison, create an equivalent correspondence, but they don't. because they are always together. and maybe washington, martha and george. at the george request said, martha concurs, that upon his death they will destroy all their correspondence. only three letters survived. so part of this, part of the story is available to us because of the volume of the letters. the volume is important, but the quality is even more important. even if james and ali wrote, or even if they didn't destroy their own letters, washington washington, they wouldn't match this correspondence. it's the literary quality,
emotional honesty and candor that they sustained for 59 years. and allow us to understand what love means over a lifetime. not just wrong on juliet, romantic love out of adolescence, but as the seasons and changes, and as you suffer together. abigail was asked in her old age whether she would do it all over again, and she said i cannot imagine suffering the same amount with anyone else. [laughter] >> i mean, they lost three kids. they watched him go down any elections. in some ways, something together is the most ultimate expression of all. it's particularly new england idea there all of us read, understand instinctively. let me read you a brief passage
that gets at this, when they are courting. and it talks about their correspondence. this is before they get married, which is almost now, it's october 25, 1764. abigail was more than half serious when a few months before their wedding she asked john to deliver on his promise and tell me all my false, both of omission and commission. and all the evil, either or think of me. tell me what you really think. john raese bond with a mock catalog of your faults, imperfection, deficits are whatever you please to call them. she was, he observed, negligent and playing cards, could not sing a note, hung her head like a bull rush, sat with her legs
crossed, pigeon toed, and to cap it all she read too much. at a gale responded that many of these defects were probably in curable, especially the reading so he would have to learn to live with that. the leg crossing charge structure as awkward, since, as she put it, a gentleman has no business to concern himself with the legs of a lady. the letters exchanged during their courtship provide the fullest and first fullest window into the chemistry of their relationship, but would probably be wrong to presume that the correspondent accurately reflected whether they talk to each other when they were together. letterwriting in 18th century was a more deliberative and self-consciously artful exercise than those of us in the present with our cell phones, e-mail, and text messaging can't fully
fathom. it's a psychologically different world. the letters of course are always have to recover the texture of their overlapping personalities. while they constitute a long string of emotional and intellectual pearls, unmatched in the literature of the era, they were also self-conscious performances, ozzie guillen to go presentations, more stylized and orchestrated than real conversations. there are some things in short that we can never know for sure about their deepest thoughts and feelings, though they are among the most fully revealed couple's in american history, given the likely depth of the letters of the present and future. i don't think we'll know as much about any prominent american political leaders in the future as we know about them. to be essential agreements in their lifetime literary dialogue
were clear from the start. abigail, despite the lack of any form of education, she was a homeschooled by her father and her grandmother, could match john with a passion, which was saying quite a lot, since he proved to be one of the master letterwriters in an age not liking in serious contents like thomas jefferson and benjamin franklin. second, there was a presumed sense of psychological equality between them that abigail presumed, and john found intoxicating. she was marrying a man who loved the fact that she was, as he put it, saucy. and he was marrying a woman who was simultaneously capable of unconditional love and personal independence. they recognized from the beginning that they were a rare
match. her grandmother tried to talk her out of it. she thought that abigail was marrying down. she said, i have found my man, and i intend to keep him. there were so many topics they could talk about easily, and just as many that they did not have to talk about that all. the wedding occurred on october 25, as i said, 1764, in the same parlor of her fathers house. her father was a minister just outside of boston, where initially they had found themselves totally uninterested. in her last letter to john before the wedding, abigail asked him to take all her belongings, which she was forwarding in a card to their new home in braintree. and then she said, and then, sir, if you please, you may take me. [laughter]
>> that gives you a bit of a sense of the correspondence. i want to give you, as i say, and to moment. i thought of getting you in the summer of 77. it's got a melodramatic quality to it. abigail is pregnant. in 13 years, she is pregnant six times. that's normal for new england women. they lose two to three kids, out of 12. and she writes him, he's in philadelphia. it's a very pivotal moment in the war. general how is sending out, god knows what is going. they think he might put up the hudson. he might be trying to capture philadelphia that he is trying to go all the south side of the chesapeake to come up from the south that john said he is going to california. [laughter]
>> is quickly a significant more. it is a decision, a failed decision because it leaves the army marooned in new york, and they're an eyelid at the battle of saratoga. captured. so the movements of the british army, at the movements inside abigail, the uterus of abigail. she's pregnant. they can't write directly about it, the conventions of the 18th century concluded, but he is worried and then she writes him in june and says, i felt something and i don't like it. i think something is wrong. and there's a two week a two-week hiatus between when she writes and when he gets the letter, and vice versa.
so there's -- this is what makes this is so difficult. he's riding her about the politics, and by the time he gets it, it's already happened. the child has been born. it is still born. is a girl named elizabeth. probably strangulation with the vocal chord. but she's writing in between the contractions of the birth. later on when he leaves the presidency for seven months to be with her when she's sick, and this is how can you possibly leave the presidency? this is the reason that he never once -- he thinks she might be dying. he's never going to make this a mistake of being away from her again. but i won't tell you that story. i want to tell you the story, the most famous letter, probably in the entire correspondence
from abigail, march 31, 1776. it's the, remembers that remember the lady. everybody is i bet everyone has taken a woman's history's course. it's an unhappy life. but abigail isn't like a feminist in anything like a modern sense of the term. she is a singular woman, an independent woman who recognizes the implications of liberal argument. but it's an interesting dilemma. what do you do when you're 200 years ahead of your time? which is what she really was. and the decision -- she was most unhappy when john was away. she was clinically depressed between 1781-85 when he was at war. i don't think that's bad but i think that's the way it was. to call her a feminist, i would call her a promo feminist.
you get the point. second dipping moment. john's presidency again, what i find so stunning is the overlapping relation between the private and the public story. john is elected president in 7096, a close election, 72-69. very sectional vote. adams comes to the presidency almost may be worse than obama, in terms of what he inherits. i mean, obama has a good case, he's in a ditch. john comes after george
washington. how would you like that? the greatest era of the hm and probably the greatest hero in american history. his cabinet is all willed to hamilton. he doesn't think he can reappoint them. it's unprecedented that there's never been a change in administration, so literally the secretary of treasury of war and state are all loyal to hamilton. i mean by loyal, hamilton thinks he is the president he really does. once washington leaves the stage, hamilton goes nuts. hamilton has been living under the aegis, as he calls it, of washington. some of the things that hamilton does in 1796, 97, 98, our incredible. there's a war going on with
france, and declared. and his vice president, thomas jefferson, a guy who ran against him for the president. jefferson, in his capacity, as leader of the opposition, is leaking all information to the french council in philadelphia, and telling the government of france in paris not to get any attention to anything the president of the estates says. he doesn't speak to the american people. even though duly elected. this is a pretty big thing to deal with here. you have to read the book to get the fullest context, but abigail is expending influential. before there was eleanor roosevelt, before there was hillary clinton, before there was maybe michele obama, there was abigail.
and at this stage, abigail's influence proves catastrophic. because abigail is going, and he says that on his part, to sign the indian institution act, the biggest blunder of his presidency. the team can that would be tied to his reputation throughout the ages and pages of history books. why? well, does this sound familiar to you? george washington, upon retirement, as adams takes the presidency, the of aura, the fox news of you today, says we have absolutely clear and convincing evidence that during the entire war for independence george washington was equally a spy for the british.
[laughter] >> it's actually a series of forged documents that the bridge were trying to undermine washington's authority. upon his retirement, we seriously question whether you have any honor, whether you had any honor or whether you have simply lost it. for this one. we devoutly pray for your eminence passionate imminent death. this is washington, okay? that's the partisan, that's the world that is created here. so adams comes in, and they launch on him. john adams intends to make himself team and to appoint his son john quincy his successor for life. if reelected, it's not has a boatload of 24 prostitutes in london that he intends to bring to the presidential mansion.
and reliable witnesses can testify that he is certifiably insane. remember eagleton? remember that in 72? that's what, that's what the political culture is like. in that moment, abigail is a line is protecting her layer. she cannot believe what's being said a doctor husband, and her son. there's a funny moment when the publisher of the newspaperman imagers, publisher of a newspaper called the wasp, great title, accuses adams of having a big ass. [laughter] >> and wendy actually wonderful features of the indian act, and most people don't know this, is the act is the first time in british or american law makes
truth by defense. if you say the king of england has a big ass, inc. he does, that's worse, okay? you go to jail for ever or they cut your head off. in the alien sedition act if it's true, you can't be prosecuted. abigail says we can't go after that guy because i do know you do have a big ass. [laughter] >> but how does he know? [laughter] >> but she does persuade him to sign this piece of legislation, which is, you know, it goes out, it'll has two-year statute of limitation, but it is, it's too bad. when they retire out and says, i feel i've made a great change, great exchange. i have changed owners for
manure. he has his barn full of seaweed, and he can't wait to get back to quincy. the retirement years are themselves interesting and i try to write about those. john is always worried about what he calls dying at the top. meaning dementia. >> his mind keeps reaching away and the gilbert stuart portrait of 1824 sort of captures that. abigail has suffered for some time with arthritis, is incapacitated for long periods of time there are these moments
when she and john get to ride up through the fields in their carriage. they go to boston three times, and it's like they are faded, it's like to go to harvard and it's like people out of the past. you know, like people from a distant era. it's hard to know how to talk to them. abigail dies in 1818 of typhoid, and with a stroke, to. john goes to bed and lies down beside her, she is dying is as i just wanted to lie down and die with you. he thinks he is going to go soon. heaven, for him, he thinks the beatific vision is boring as hell.
and heaven for him is going to make love with abigail and argue with jefferson and ben franklin. he's not sure there is a heaven. he's got a great line. he says if it can ever be shown conclusively that there is no hereafter, my thighs to every man and child on the planet is, take opium. [laughter] >> but this is how he goes. and that's it, he knew that his powers of thought and speech were prominently diminished, so when a delegation from quincy visited him on june 30, 1826, requesting some statement from the patriarch within an independence day celebration, he refused to cooperate. i will give you any penance for ever, he declared. asked if he might like to elaborate, he declined. not a word.
he had finally learned at the very and the gift of silence, something he never learned. abigail would have approved. physicians and other visitors came from his bedside, convinced that the end was near. he was 91. on the morning of july 4, john lay in his bed breathing with difficulty, apparently unable to speak. when the prize that was the fourth and the 50th anniversary of independence, he lifted his head and with obvious effort to click, it is a great day. it is a good day. late in the afternoon he stirred and respond to severe thunderstorms, so school he described as the artillery of heaven. and was heard to whisper, thomas jefferson survives, by several -- are some historic center of question whether this happen. it happen. it's in the record at it is
recorded. up at a coincidence that defied the probability of history, and given the parameters of fiction, deficit had died earlier that same afternoon, both patriarchs each possessed an endowment of willpower seem determined to die on schedule. madison died on the third. madison and monroe died on the second. they're all trying to die on the fourth. john drew his last breath shortly after 6:00, witnesses reported that a final clap of thunder sounded at his passing and a bright sun broke through the clouds. an estimated 4000 people attended the funeral at the first congregational church three days later, as his body was laid to rest alongside abigail's. they have remained together ever since. thank you. [applause]
>> actually they move them across the street to the unitarian church because of john quincy bought two crips for them, and he and his own wife were buried next to them. john mica been a unitarian by the time, at that stage. unitarianism is the featherbed to heaven. you don't actually believe anything to be a unitarian. [laughter] >> have i prompted any questions? or comments. >> under there's a mic right there so you have to go to the mic because c-span is covering this event. people have to speak. yes, sir. >> this is just to fill the time until someone comes up with a better question. i've heard the clip that the children and grandchildren were raised by abigail grew up to
deplorable lives. the children that were raised by john adams, or by other family members grew up to have great allies. some of the other grandchildren were raised away from her and buy a. i wonder if you could comment on that. >> some of the book tries to talk about the childbearing issues. as a parent, actually when much of it is right here, you do your best. who knows how it turns out? what you said is partially to and partially misleading. abigail herself worries about the fact that all the children, up until he certain stage, are being raised without their father around a lot. she talks about that. they develop an impression of their father as a result that wouldn't exist if he was there, namely, as some extraordinary
heroic almost beyond human figure, whereas if he was really there you would see the bubbling idiot about certain things. that is true he takes john quincy with him to paris and then again the second time to paris and amsterdam. he takes charles ii time also. of the for adam's children, it is really disorienting when you're writing about the because, as you are reading about how to get and john's concern about them ,-comcome is their children. you know what's going to happen to them. okay? and it is not a happy story. john quincy to succeed -- john quincy from the time he exits the womb is program to become a major public figure in american issue. john quincy is probably the most intellectually prepared person ever to be elected to the presidency of the united states. when he was sent to the
ambassador of st. petersburg, there was a debate in the senate and they said is this man qualified? the are you was, does anybody else read and speak latin, greek, french, dutch, russian and german? if there's anyone else who does, we would like to please entertain him. he is not a happy man, however. he doesn't have a happy life. and he is a one term president, as john sort of knew he would. but nevertheless, he's a significant figure in american fashion he's a great secretary of state, too, and a proponent of slavery as he is a member of the house of representatives. as many of you know. in fact, there's a great book, you got me on this, there's a great book to be written about this. and it's called the missing link. john quincy is the missing link between founders and lincoln. john quincy dies in the well of
the senate in 1848. i think i got this right. and present to watch them fall is lincoln. and the missing link. somebody can take this idea and run with it. patty may marry this guy who ends up losing everything and a variety of poor investment. charles becomes an alcoholic and a drug addict who dies at 30 in new york. even though as a chatty is the most beguiled that all three of the boys by the graduated from harvard. does this sound to my request abigail whether in europe was spending that were worried about spending money on elaborate dinners. will not be able to afford college tuition for our children. tommy, the youngest, and he is the most invisible, fails as a lawyer in philadelphia.
and eventually comes back to live with his parents in quincy. and as a local girl and has like eight kids. but he is an alcoholic.so, e pas dynasty is one child succeeds enormously, and all the rest of them are horrible failures. is this the fault of abigail and john? there are some letters that avail -- abigail rights to john quincy that will scare the hell out of, and more than john. abigail is tougher than john. abigail says, you know, toshiba say passionate they say about almost so, a ship that john and she says, she's glad it didn't, but if you turn out to be an immoral man i would rather you died right now.
where as, this is john's idea is different. he is with john, they are together in a number of the netherlands and john quincy says i would like to buy a pair of ice skates. very indulgent, right? so john chrisos no, you can't have any i skates. and then john thinks, well, and one of the things that i don't have is grace. and maybe if i buy you ice skates, he writes this to him, okay okay, you will learn to dance and, therefore, this is an investment in you. and in your overall maturity. and so i will buy you ice skate on one condition, we buy them a size large so we don't have to buy any new ones. okay? that was john's way of being a more indulgent parent then his mother, then john quincy's mother. there's stuff that is written, a
book called, it's a book about the adams dynasty that sort of dumps on abigail as a mother. i don't think that is fair. i think it is imposing a set of, you know, 20 and 21st century standards. when natty's children come to live with her in quincy, abigail says, you know, my standards for child rearing are different from yours. they are more us to answer their but i have to recognize that that is a different kind of thing. most of the grandchildren in the equally horrible. i mean, george, the grandson from john quincy, commits suicide. the other kid dies youthful. so it's not a romance. it's not, it's not -- it's got all kinds of horrible things in
it. i know people want to get out of here, and maybe buy a book on and so passionate. >> if you want to answer all these questions, you've got to get shorter. [laughter] >> absolutely right. >> if you get me going, there's too many things, we will take one more question and then handle questions as we -- yes, sir. >> i'm struck by the fact that it seems to mean you do not like thomas jefferson, in regard his reputation as a deserved. and largely based on his writing one document in 1776. and i wonder what you see in the -- >> that's too strong. >> i know, but i had to get you going. do you see any parallels in the current president who has been sometimes regarded as having given one speech or two, and become a president? >> no. >> great.
[laughter] >> no, i understand what you're saying. let me put it to you this way. when i was talking about the election of 1800 jefferson, adams, the traditional interpretation of the election of 1800 is anti-jeffersonian interpretation that the federalists have captured the american revolution. and carried it in this despotic direction. and jefferson is elected and recover the original spirit of the revolution. it's the second american revolution. what it really is is the victor a states and slavery. that's what it really is. that's what the adams is. it's not democracy versus aristocracy that its states rights versus a national vision. and jefferson is committed to --
jefferson would have been with confederacy in 1861, clearly. i'm not so sure about madison. and that's the reason, along with a hypocrisy on the racial issue, because one of his core argument on the racial issues is jefferson was that we can't afford to free the slaves because then they will intermarry with whites. and corrupt the anglo-saxon race. well, meanwhile, he is fathering four to six children by sally hemmings. it's pretty bad. and this from a guy he was a virginian, went to the same school as jefferson, william and mary. what he remains is the same color as jefferson's. so i'm not totally alienated, but i do think that jefferson is the most resonant and contradiction figure in american history. we hold these truths, and he is
simultaneously the symbol of the central dilemma of american history, slavery and race. he stands astride both of those issues. sir, maybe we will -- i will try to be really brief. you got me going. >> right now i'm sure you're an expert in reading letters written in those days, in the course of writing this book. >> if i'm not, i'm in big trouble. [laughter] >> i'm intrigued and how one wrote a letter in those days. you've intimated, well, you were conscious of when you were writing, but did you do all of the draft in your head and then write -- >> they didn't do draft. abigail wrote in the evening after the children were in bed at a kitchen table in a four room house. if you go to visit it in quincy you can't believe how small it is. john wrote in the morning before he went off to do his morning
ride. the original letters reflect -- they had cross outs and there are -- john especially is hard to be. his hand. even as a young man is not good. abigail is easier to read. but one of the reasons that i remain an anti-delusion in terms of the writing of books is i actually write all my books by hand. on the back of xerox paper that is blank. and i believe there is a connection between the movement of my fingers and wrists and the muscles and the movement in my head. now, i don't recommend that for anybody. and survey the next generation has gone in a totally different direction, but it works for me. and there is a deliberative quality of letter writing in the
18th century that we need to understand, that there's nothing interactive about communication. and so you're having to be more thoughtful, and the way you are expressing herself is, it's not just like a conversation. you are reporting on your thought process at that moment. there's more invested. abigail has a wonderful line early in her life. she said, my pain is freer than my tongue. i can write to you things i cannot speak to you. which is i think a good. she also said to talk about her commitment, she said about john, when he is wounded, i bleed. okay? one more and then we've got to go. >> we have two people. we'll try to deal with it. we will try to be brief. >> to the extent it's even possible to end to this
question, what do you think adams would think of the living document theory of the constitution? that is, the idea that the meaning of the words of the text change over time. >> adams is a clear advocate of the mean, the notion that the end continue in 10 is frozen is absurd. and he is aware of the fact that the original intentions themselves don't agree. and, therefore, he would be more like, he would be a liberal jurisprudence person rather than a thomas. so by the way would jefferson. jefferson thought that the constitution ought to be rewritten every generation there so that the original intent a school which has come into existence only recently in the
'80s, he is bizarre from their point of view. and foremost historians point of view, bizarre, because we all know as historians that there are a lot of different original intentions. and the one thing we know they intended is to have the document changed. >> the last question. >> you alluded earlier to other first ladies. i wonder in this case, the role that abigail played in john's tenure during his white house residence. i mean, you alluded before to the sedition act and so forth. but is there a singular moment that you think that really stands out during that period in which her influence was critical in terms of his presidency? >> that was the most critical moment. abigail and john are the most seasoned diplomats in the united states. they have served in european courts in both paris and london. so that as vice president and then as president, she and john are